I had a silly Internet conversation.
Alex: When you become a world renown writer with like 10 books on the NY Times top selling books list, can you make one TERRIBLE psychology pun in a book, so I know that you love me
KJ: If you can give me a good psychology gag appropriate to the Edwardian era (Freud, I suppose?) I’ll see if I can get it in the one I’m doing now. Hmm. I’m looking at 1902 here, would that be hideously anachronistic? Off to Wikipedia!
KJ: Oh bah, the period’s wrong. I shall keep this challenge in mind, somehow.
Alex: Wait, this is not the wrong era
Alex: oh, out by a few years
KJ: 1902 so Freud wasn’t famous yet
KJ: Alright, the Psychotherapy Gag Gauntlet has been thrown down and accepted subject to me writing a book set after 1904.
And there the matter rested and I thought no more about it.
Three weeks and 20,000 words later, I was doing a conversation that revealed backstory.
I knew that my hero, Daniel da Silva, had been kicked out of Cambridge. I knew why, it’s important for his character and reactions, but I wasn’t sure what he’d done next. I was sure he’d finished his degree somehow, he’s a stubborn sort. So, when I came to that part of his backstory, I wondered if he’d he’d gone abroad.
Where? Well, Germany was the European centre of education in 1902. And a German education would mean he speaks fluent German, which would open up all kinds of new fields for his part-time employment as a spy. I had already started wondering if maybe his mother should be German, to give him fluent language skills; the foreign education is a much more elegant solution.
So, I had a useful backstory point. Nothing serious. But at this point, a number of existing plot points and issues started to coalesce.
- If da Silva speaks German, lived there, has probably been travelling for spying purposes in the German alliance states of fin de siècle Central Europe, he might well have encountered some cutting edge thoughts on how the mind works.
- In fact, Da Silva has a phobia of going underground. Might he have sought out and consulted some forward-thinking doctor about that?
- Curtis, his counterpart, has a post-traumatic psychosomatic injury. You try saying that in Edwardian English. But if da Silva was able to discuss that in the context of modern (1902) thought…
- Da Silva is ultra-modern, intellectual, Jewish, Continental, introspective – all the things that Freud represented that were alien to a stolidly English mindset, such as Curtis’s, which da Silva is busy upsetting, leading to some wonderfully difficult conversations.
- And after quite a lot of subterfuge, sneaking, verbal sparring, psychological cave torture and bare-knuckle fighting, I really needed a scene where the two of them could stop, and talk, and laugh…
Bugger me. What I needed, quite specifically, was one of the psychology jokes that Alex had sent me.
Now, I absolutely did not twist the plot to shoehorn in a joke. I’d entirely forgotten about the silly Facebook chat at that point. But somehow, spending five minutes three weeks ago looking at early psychology on Wikipedia had fermented at the back of my mind till I had a really useful bit of backstory, a way to talk about one of the characters’ issues, a running theme that clarified the contrast in personality and background between them, and a terrific joke for a scene that needed the sort of connection that comes with shared laughter.
I’m not sure what this goes to show about writing, except that you never know what will prove fertile ground for the story to grow. But thank you, Freud, for the glory that is the human subconscious. And thank you, Alex, for the joke.